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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum


  1. The Refugee Protection Act and the “Central Reason” for Persecution

    This is part four in a series of posts about the Refugee Protection Act ("RPA"), a bill introduced by Senators Leahy and Levin in the United States Senate.  The RPA would modify the requirements for asylum by changing the requirement that a "central reason" for the persecution is a protected ground.
    In order to qualify for asylum, an applicant must demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution based on a protected ground (race, religion, nationality, political opinion, particular social group).  The REAL ID Act (effective May 11, 2005) modified this definition, and the law now requires that "at least one central reason" for the persecution must be a protected ground.  The BIA found that this new requirement did not "radically alter[]" existing law. See In re: J-B-N- & S-M-, 24 I&N Dec. 208 (BIA 2007). 
    While the law may not have been radically altered, the REAL ID Act makes it more difficult for asylum seekers to obtain relief.  I worked on a case in the Fourth Circuit (ably litigated at the agency level by the University of Maryland Law School Clinic) where an El Salvadoran man had been repeatedly harassed and beaten by members of the MS-13 gang.  The gang attacked him for several reasons: (1) they did not want him to date a certain girl; (2) they wanted to steal his money; and (3) they did not want him to attend the Seventh Day Adventist Church.  The Immigration Judge ("IJ") specifically found that the harm faced by the asylum seeker rose to the level of persecution, and she told him: "I think you are in a terrible situation and I could not have more sympathy for you."  However, both the IJ and the BIA found that the "central reasons" for the persecution were that the gang did not want my client to date the girl and the gang wanted to rob him-these are not protected grounds.  The BIA found that "even assuming... religion was one motive, we do not find his religion to be 'at least one central reason' for the persecution."  The Fourth Circuit agreed and denied our Petition for Review. See Quinteros-Mendoza v. Holder, 556 F.3d 159 (4th Cir. 2009). 
    The difficulty in Quinteros-Mendoza was that the IJ had to determine the motivation of the gang members.  It is difficult enough to establish the motivation of a persecutor, let alone to rank that motivation as "one central reason" for the persecution.  The RPA would relax this requirement.  The law would be changed so that the applicant must prove only that a protected ground is "a factor in the applicant's persecution or fear of persecution." 
    Where an asylum applicant faces persecution, he should not be required to demonstrate the motivation for his persecutor's actions with such specificity.  The RPA would correct this problem.
  2. FAIR Asks EOIR to Violate the Law in Aunt Onyango's Case

    The Federation for American Immigration Reform is calling upon the Justice Department and the Executive Office for Immigration Review ("EOIR") to violate the law and make public the record in the recently-decided asylum case of President Obama's aunt.  PR Newswire reports:
    Today's decision granting President Obama's aunt, Zeituni Onyango, political asylum provides a case study in how those seeking to evade U.S. immigration laws can manipulate the system, charged the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).  FAIR also demanded that the entire record of her case, which was rendered after years of delay and after Ms. Onyango refused to comply with a deportation order, be made public.
    Judge Leonard Shapiro did not reveal the basis for his decision to grant asylum to Ms. Onyango and Ms. Onyango's attorney has declared that his client wants to keep the decision confidential.  "Given Onyango's relationship to the president, the American people have a right to know on what grounds Ms. Onyango's asylum was granted," [FAIR President Dan] Stein said.  "Illness and political turmoil in one's homeland are not recognized as grounds for being granted asylum.  Defining asylum so broadly not only exceeds any reasonable interpretation of the law, but would make countless millions of people around the world eligible for asylum in the U.S.   Americans deserve to know whether the system worked."
    Of course Mr. Stein has no idea why Ms. Onyango was granted asylum, but that clearly did not stop him from forming an opinion.  Worse, his "demand" that the decision be made public directly contradicts the law.  From the EOIR Practice Manual:
    Evidentiary hearings involving an application for asylum or withholding of removal ("restriction on removal"), or a claim brought under the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, are open to the public unless the respondent expressly requests that the hearing be closed.  In cases involving these applications or claims, the Immigration Judge inquires whether the respondent requests such closure. 
    Ms. Onyango has requested that the hearing be closed and that should be the end of the matter.  Confidentiality in asylum cases is important to protect asylum seekers and their families.  While there are legitimate issues to be raised concerning the asylum process, Mr. Stein's "demand" demonstrates his callous disregard for the rights and safety of asylum seekers.
  3. The Refugee Protection Act and Particular Social Groups

    This is part three in a series about the Refugee Protection Act.  The RPA provides guidance about what constitutes a "particular social group."
    A refugee is defined as a person with a well founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. See INA § 101(a)(42)(A).  There has been much litigation concerning what constitutes a "particular social group."  
    The Refugee Protection Act provides helpful guidance on what constitutes a "particular social group."  The RPA states:
    For purposes of determinations under the Act, any group whose members share a characteristic that is either immutable or fundamental to identity, conscience, or the exercise of the person's human rights such that the person should not be required to change it, shall be deemed a particular social group, without any additional requirement.
    While this provision makes the definition of "particular social group" more specific, it still leaves open at least one important question: Will the definition of "particular social group" apply to former members of criminal organizations?  In the Seventh Circuit case, Ramos v. Holder, 589 F.3d 426 (7th Cir. 2009), the court held that former gang members might constitute a particular social group.  If the Refugee Protection Act defines a "particular social group" as "any group whose members share a characteristic that is... immutable," then former gang members would qualify as a particular social group.  Current-as opposed to former-gang members would not qualify as a particular social group because gang membership is not immutable.  In other words, it is possible to quit the gang.  Former gang membership is immutable, because it is not possible for an alien to change the fact that he once belonged to a criminal gang.  Under the RPA, it seems that a former member of any organization would be part of a particular social group.
    Even if former gang members constitute a particular social group, they would likely be ineligible for asylum based on criminal and security-related grounds.
    I have worked on several cases where former gang members feared persecution by gangs.  In one case, several members of my client's family had been killed.  My client was granting withholding of removal based on his particular social group (his family; not his former gang membership).  In another case, my client was denied relief where the IJ found that he did not belong to a particular social group.  In both cases, the clients faced harm from the gang because they quit the gang.  The danger of gang violence against former gang members is very real.  In a well known case, Edgar Chocoy, a 16-year-old former member of the MS-13 gang, was ordered removed from the United States.  Shortly after he returned to Guatemala, gang members murdered him. 
    The Refugee Protection Act should provide protection for former gang members who face harm in their countries.  While we must be cognizant of security concerns (and of offering benefits to criminals), we must also recognize the severe threat faced by legitimate former gang members. 
  4. Senate Hearing on the Refugee Protection Act

    The Senate Judiciary committee held a hearing yesterday on the Refugee Protection Act.  I wasn't able to attend, but the Senate conveniently records such hearings, and you can view it here. 

    Doggone it, people like the RPA
    My friend who attended thought it did not go very well for supporters of the bill.  I can't say I agree, though the last five minutes, when neither of the pro-RPA witnesses could answer Senator Franken's softball questions and each tried to defer to the other, was not a shining moment.  Here are some other moments worth mentioning:
    The ranking Republican, Senator Sessions from Alabama, raised some legitimate (and some not-so-legitimate) concerns that will probably need to be addressed if the bill is ever to become law.  Of course, the first issue was national security.  He felt that the RPA would allow Osama Bin Laden's wife (wives?) and children to claim asylum in the United States, as the law relaxes barriers for family members of terrorists.  Given the limited number of people we can admit each year, he argued, we would be better off admitting people without close ties to terrorists.  He also stated that the RPA would broaden the definition of "asylum seeker," and thus encourage more fraudulent claims.  He questioned how many people we could realistically allow to enter the United States as refugees and asylees.  He argued that we could not admit everyone who meets the definition of a refugee, and said that if things fell apart in Afghanistan or Iraq, we could not take in all the people who sided with us in those wars.
    There were two pro-RPA witnesses, Dan Glickman of Refugees International and Patrick Giantonio of Vermont Immigration and Asylum Advocates.  They argued that the one-year filing deadline does not serve its intended purpose of reducing fraud.  Mr. Giantonio noted that many asylum seekers who fail to file within one year of arrival receive withholding of removal or relief under the UN Convention Against Torture.  Both forms of relief have a higher burden of proof than asylum.  Thus, if the one year deadline were not an issue, such people would have qualified for asylum (I agree with this point).  From the alien's point of view, asylum is a more desirable outcome than the other forms of relief, but the witnesses did not mention the benefits of asylum.  The pro-RPA witnesses also emphasized that the bill would not compromise national security because refugees and asylum seekers would remain subject to all the same background checks that are currently required.  Mr. Giantonio also briefly mentioned some of the deleterious effects of immigration detention on asylum seekers.
    Igor V. Timofeyev, a former DHS official and a Soviet Jewish refugee, testified in his personal capacity.  He appeared as the anti-RPA witness, though his criticisms were fairly tame (refreshing given the normal discourse on most immigration-related issues).  His concerns were national security, national security, and national security.  He also mentioned that federal appeals courts are overburdened with immigration cases.
    Finally, it bears mentioning that Senator Leahy included in the record a letter signed by 89 faith-based, human rights, legal services and refugee assistance organizations and 99 individual asylum law practitioners, pro bono attorneys, law professors and other experts in the field (including this humble blogger). 
  5. The Refugee Protection Act and the Material Support Bar

    This is part dieux in our series of posts about the Refugee Protection Act.  Today's topic is the "Material Support Bar," INA § 212(a)(3)(B)(iv)(VI), which states that an alien who commits an act that he "knows, or reasonably should know, affords material support" to a terrorist organization is inadmissible.  As written, the law makes no exception for instances where the alien has been coerced into providing support.  The RPA would change that.
    About a year ago, I represented an elderly Iraqi Christian woman who had received threats from unknown people seeking to extort money.  The people threatened to murder her son.  As a result of the threats, and in order to save her son, the women gave money to the extortionists.  Given that these people were likely terrorists, the woman faced a bar to obtaining asylum in the U.S.  We relied on a USCIS memorandum, which allowed for limited exceptions to the material support bar in the case of duress, and the woman received asylum.  A pro se applicant might not have access to that memorandum, and might not be able to relate the relevant facts necessary to meet the exception to the material support bar.
    The Refugee Protection Act creates an exception to the material support bar for people who have been coerced to provide material support to terrorists.  This would reduce or eliminate the problem of denying asylum to people who have been victimized by terrorists.
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